The names have been changed to protect the families and children involved because I truly felt that I should share with you my experience.
I spent the last week visiting a friend of ours up in New Jersey while James is on a work trip and she is a trainer. Of people, on horses. She gives riding lessons. An amazing girl that I am lucky to call my friend and I'm so glad that we finally have time to visit her and her husband. She works/volunteers at a local equestrian center with boarding stalls, training rings, arenas, etc. They do a lot of work with a local school for disabled children to help improve their motor and sensory functions.
I have spent a lot of time around kids in my life. I was a babysitter on and off since I was a kid watching my brother. Then a nanny, personal assistant, and I have friends with kids. Up until yesterday, I have never spent any time with disabled children. I would be lying if I said I wasn't intimidated. Besides the fact that I grew up around horses and rode when I was 8-12 years old, I was in completely uncharted territory. You could say that I was definitely out of my comfort zone and it was one of the best experiences I've had in a very, very long time.
Helping out last week mostly consisted of being a sidewalker. A sidewalker is someone who walks alongside the horse to help support and hold onto the child so that they don't fall off. They usually don't have any balance so we are there to support them physically while they learn to hold their bodies upright. You have to keep in mind that some of these kids are blind, some cannot speak or understand you, others are incredibly intelligent and know exactly what is going on but are trapped inside their body and cannot communicate back with you, and others are in perpetual states of motion (always rocking and throwing themselves around). Some kids were easier than others to work with.
The first young boy I worked with, we will call him Ryan, was in a perpetual state of motion. When he first got on the horse he rocked back and forth, throwing himself forward until he slams his helmet into the horses mane, and then throwing himself backwards until his head hit the horses butt. It is a bit scary when you think of the safety side because leaning forward on a horse means go. We are very lucky that the center not only has wonderful trainers working with the horses but wonderful horses that can tolerate and cooperate with these kids. Towards the middle of Ryan's ride he stopped rocking. He sat perfectly still and though he couldn't hold himself up physically (that's what we were for) he wasn't thrashing and he was just crying. At that moment, I realized that he was happy. His body was responding to the soothing motion of being on a horse. Ryan wasn't in pain for that moment, his body could relax. It broke my heart, in the best possible way.
Throughout the rest of the morning I sidewalked with a blind girl, an older boy and and older girl who had been going there for several years. The blind girl, we will call her Ann, was actually there for the first time ever. Her teacher told us that even at school when they try and do motion therapy of any kind she screams, blood curdling screams. I would have never guessed because she was quiet, unbelievably quiet. She may not have known where she was but she was happy, supporting her upper trunk and riding a horse. The older girl, we'll call her Maggie, had a serious fascination for my glasses and hat. She also loved to sing. Although she wasn't particularly in the mood to "work" on her skills and using her hands with the certified therapist trainer, she certainly was having a great time and even recognized herself in the mirror on the horse. I cant really come up with the words to describe how great of an experience this truly was. I have a new-found respect and admiration for the parents, families, and dedicated individuals who work with disabled children or even adults every day. The amount of physical and mental strength it takes to get through each day must be tremendous. I am so thankful to my friend and the lovely equestrian center for having me as a volunteer yesterday. This was an experience I will take with me for the rest of my life and keep as a reminder of how much we "able-bodied" people can take advantage of the things we don't ever think about.
I know that this type of experience isn't for everyone but I think that volunteering somewhere like this can be a great memory and learning experience for all people, especially when you are working with children.
Have you ever been part of an experience that truly touched your heart and gave you a new outlook on life?
Please feel free to share your stories in the comments. I would love to hear about your experiences and takeaways.